On running for self, sanity, and in the name of science

By John Ogundele

When I rave about my newly found passion for running some of my friends like to invoke one of Solomon’s lesser-known proverbs. “The wicked”, he tells us, “run when no one chases them”. 

Far from questioning my morals, they see my running as a painfully futile activity. Inspired by this uneasiness, I attempt, not quite a manifesto, but to infuse meaning into what to many is the dull task of putting one foot in front of the other.

Beating the competition (or not)

I must confess that I reached the peak of my sporting career in primary school. A healthy competitive streak, however, outlived my prowess but was ultimately frustrated – until recently. In the last three months, and in a national lockdown, I have more successfully channelled my competitive drive against myself, a process described eloquently by the creator of Nike, Phil Knight. His memoir Shoe Dog further stoked my passion for running and cemented my loyalty to the ‘Just Do It’ tribe. In it he quips ‘beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment’.

While I can’t quite relate to the first sentiment, I am more than willing to take up the challenge set by the latter. In my rivalry with self, numbers are king. Miles, kilometres, minutes and seconds. The personal best, or PB, is the ultimate and equally limitless prize. Each minute or second trimmed from a previous PB is hard won and precious.

I have more than once risked life and limb to secure the much coveted PB. Very much annoying unsuspecting drivers. The ecstasy found on the other side of a PB justifies, in my eyes at least, any minor breaches of the Highway Code. Setting out on a run with my trusty Nike Running Club app and its statistics, then, help to keep me motivated.

5 kilometres is the distance that currently has the focus of my running efforts. It forms the basic units of my close to 100 kilometres of total mileage. Though I compete with myself, the wider competitive context of the sport – dare I call it that – is not lost on me.

Entering my modest PB of just under 23 minutes into a running calculator that ranks your pace adjusting for age and sex I was pleasantly surprised. I found myself in the top 40- something percent of runners of the 5k. After fighting a losing battle to being mediocre in a fair few sports for most of my adolescence, I was at last vindicated (well, barely).

I have set my sights on running a 5k under 20 minutes. A feat that would see me venture further still into the uncharted territory of above average. 8 percentage points further to be exact.

The time-honoured method of success in running boils down at its simplest to running more frequently at varying tempos and distances. Relying on a very natural motion, running and running faster is very accessible. Knowing that the subtlety of technique, tactical and positional awareness, which eluded me in team sports won’t hinder my pursuit of this milestone helps me sleep peacefully.

I am, in fact, so optimistic about my chances that I have invested an undisclosed sum in a pair of running shoes. Bells and whistles included.

The science of running

In running, as in life, numbers aren’t everything nor do they tell the whole story. How you feel while, pounding the pavement is also important. Apart from the aching legs, tightening lungs, and tinge of regret, you can feel the so-called ‘runner’s high’. It is an easy, exhilarating feeling that can even be euphoric.

The biochemical origin story of runner’s high can be found in endorphins and endocannabinoids. The prefrontal and limbic regions of the brain release endorphins while any cell in the body can produce endocannabinoids. In response to the continuous physical discomfort running brings, these neurotransmitters are released.

To call endorphins and endocannabinoids ‘feel good’ chemicals may be an understatement when you realise that they are the body’s natural counterparts to morphine and THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) respectively.

In a very recent attempt to sustain a longer high, I ran 10 kilometres instead of the usual 5. I was not disappointed.

To further unpack the science of running we can look to Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, a book co-authored by Dr. John Ratey and Eric Hagerman. They speak of exercise, particularly cardiovascular exercise, having a ‘profound impact on cognitive abilities’ and one of ‘the best treatments for most psychiatric problems’.

Though these claims are supported by a slew of studies that are mostly small scale, their findings are biologically plausible. Exercise strengthens the pathways between the areas of the brain devoted to motor function and crucial to cognition. Exercise also boosts serotonin helping to improve mood and, among other effects, learning too.

It might have been a good thing then that I picked up my running habit when 10,000 words of my undergraduate dissertation were missing in action. But I can be forgiven for not expecting my work on the Political Culture of Colonial Hong Kong to land me a Pulitzer. I did, however, find that after runs I could approach my work with some calm.

My work-induced anxiety was reined in and my stamina to jump in and out of Word and PDF documents – as well as physical books – for hours at a time seemed to increase. In lockdown then, running was a welcome upset to a sequence of days of all work and no play and the more than occasional vice versa.

Running in first class

As well as oiling the wheels of a working day, I came to see running as a mode of transport. A little like catching a flight or hopping on a bus. Each mode alters how you see and experience the built and natural world around you. Running has allowed me to explore the parks, bridges, creative and financial hubs, and suburbs of Manchester. And to take roads that my feet otherwise would have never touched.

It goes without saying that this is not as easy as a gentle stroll or as comfortable as an upholstered seat. A run is a journey where the fare is paid in physical and mental exertion. Perhaps it can be valued more because of this.

The finish line 

A consistent running schedule is one of the few changes to my life that emerged during lockdown that I hope outlasts its easing and the global pandemic itself. Phil Knight said of running that ‘you have no real destination’. Though true, I am more than happy, after these first few strides, to never stop running.

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